jewel bush: Adventures in local eating

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jewel bush

I was first exposed to “patty pan squash,” an oddly shaped vegetable that somewhat resembles a bell pepper, at the Hollygrove Market three summers ago. A few of them came in the weekly produce box along with a recipe to cook the sunburst squash. For just 25 bucks, you get a grip of locally grown and produced fare, a rotating cast of fresh eats dependent upon the season.

My foray with patty pan squash was a culinary bust. No one in my household liked the dish, and my memory is foggy as to whether I actually enjoyed it myself despite fond memories of repeatedly saying “patty pan squash.” Patty pan squash would be unknown to me if not for the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge. Although it did not translate into a yummy culinary masterpiece, I am grateful that I was introduced to something new.

Started in 2011 by Dr. Leslie Brown and Lee Stafford, the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge is an initiative to encourage New Orleanians to spend the 30 days of June eating foods grown, caught or raised within a 200-mile radius of the city. Locally grown food is full of flavor, has more nutrients, can help reduce your carbon footprint and supports local farmers and the local food economy. On average, farmers receive only 20 cents of each food dollar spent due to the cost of transportation, processing, and packaging.  When you purchase locally, the farmer receives direct profit. Statistics suggest that local food markets account for a small, but growing, share of U.S. agricultural production, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Eating regionally produced food has been a thing nationally for close to a decade, yet the trend just caught a fire here post-Katrina when the rebuilding effort revealed food deserts, the lack of availability of quality, fresh fruit and vegetables coupled with the influx of transplants who brought their food expectations from cities that were already steeped in the movement.

“You don’t know where 75 percent of the food on your plate comes from,” said Stafford, founder of Euterpe Recycling Center and organizer of the OCH Art Market.

Being a locavore, someone committed to eating food that is either exclusively or primarily from their local or regional foodshed, is a point of dietary pride for me. In my youth, spending summers with relatives in St. Landry Parish, homegrown food was always within arms reach from fresh eggs plucked daily from the chicken coops in my grandmother’s yard to figs to watermelon to gardens ripe with cucumbers and tomatoes and the occasional boucherie. With the agricultural abundance in Louisiana, there’s so much to choose from year-round. Stafford said June was selected as the challenge month for that very reason.

“If you’re going to do something like this, you can’t do it during the spring with Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest going on with guests coming in and out of town. There’s no way,” Stafford said. “June is a very rich bountiful time of the year for produce and also seafood. You can get shrimp, crabs and oysters.”

There are four tiers to the challenge: ultra strict, strict, lenient and ultra ultra lenient, where I’m registered.

“For a month, I can really concentrate on what I eat everyday and learn a lot,” said Stafford, who has signed up as an ultra strict participant this year.  “This is like running the Crescent City Classic. I don’t go jogging a lot, but I’ll do the race because it’s fun and you’re doing it with 20,000 other people. I’ll pull it together and feel better after.”

So far, 190 participants have registered for the third annual New Orleans Eat Local Challenge. Stafford expects nearly 800 will officially sign on. It’s not too late to become a locavore. You can sign up at Zeitgeist, located at 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., today, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or online at The cost is $30 and with that fee comes a starter kit that includes a sundry of goodies like salt from Breaux Bridge, the 2013 tote bag and T-shirt, and a 10 percent discount at both the Hollygrove Market & Farm and Cleaver and Co., a place to purchase local beef, chicken, rabbit and my personal favorite, lamb.

Additions to this year’s event include more readily available meats, a mobile phone app that features information about farmers markets and recipes, more workshops and classes in addition to discoveries like pomegranates, olives, chestnuts, horseradish and kohlrabi.

“Who knew you could get artichokes from Pointe Coupee Parish?” Stafford said.

Jenne Lilos, a second year participant, found local flour and tofu during the 2012 challenge: “I support local farmers, and I like to know where my food is coming from.”

So much of New Orleans culture is based around food. When we socialize, cooking and sharing homemade entrees or even bringing a covered dish from your favorite Mom and Pop restaurant are at the forefront of the activity. Making groceries can be a grand affair with shoppers possessing an allegiance, intimate devotion to their market of choice. Sharing a meal here is a deep expression of love. Being a foodie isn’t simply a passing fad in the Crescent City. It’s who we are, our Southern way of life. Consider dedicating a month to locavorism.

“It’s fun to see people get into it and people who initially didn’t really see the point in it become zealots and say, ‘I am a champion of the local food movement,’” Stafford said.

jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. She is currently communications coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 21LA. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis.

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